GOD ALONE PROVIDES FOR THE OBEDIENCE OF HEART AND WILL
Sermon delivered on the 3rd Sunday after Trinity, the 2nd July 2017 by Bishop Nicholas JG Sykes in the congregation of St. Alban's Church of England, George Town, Cayman Islands.
Scriptures: Jeremiah 28: 5-9 Romans 6: 12-23 S. Matthew 10:40-42
Romans 6: 17f "But thanks be to God, that you who were once slaves of sin have become obedient from the heart to the standard of teaching to which you were delivered, and, having been set free from sin, have become slaves of righteousness."
Every teacher knows that there is a difference between the way in which parents and children in general see school as a principle on the one hand, and the way on the other hand in which a child, and often enough the parent, will react to the child’s not being able to understand something immediately in the classroom. If the child through his appetite for comfort pulls away from the general intention of the class and hides behind expressions such as “I don’t understand”, he is in danger of falling away from the whole principle of going to school in the first place. But that may be an image of a wider reality about which all of us need to be aware.
SLAVES OF RIGHTEOUSNESS
In our second lesson from Romans Ch. 6 St. Paul says in verse 19 that he is using the imagery of the institution of slavery because of the human weakness of his hearers, specifically the weakness of their flesh (in Greek, sarkos). By that "weakness" he means the great tendency of human appetite to pull away from what the whole person in his spirit and will and intention is committed to. Therefore, even if a person has been delivered by baptism and faith to the righteousness of Christ, by the weakness of human appetite he is still in danger of falling in a direction that is opposite to righteousness. So St. Paul uses this slavery language to remind his hearers that even such a wonderful thing as the grace of God that makes us his sons and daughters does not pander to our human feelings. Certainly there can be no more wonderful feeling when we contemplate the knowledge that our Father has adopted us and made us his sons and daughters, yet the way of life that that knowledge commits us to is not something for which in every aspect we have an appetite or affinity. In addition we need the constant reminder that St. Paul gives his hearers, that our baptismal deliverance and commitment must not just be something we want, but something we must be enslaved to in spite of what we may want.
THE MODERN ORTHODOXY
These insights of St. Paul, which are at the heart of the biblical revelation, fly in the face of a good deal of what we take for granted in our modern life and world-view. Indeed, it is no longer even merely a matter of taking it for granted, because we have gone very far in the process of formalising and cementing the current secular orthodoxy. We children of the Western world are continually being taught that what you feel to do must be a priori good unless it interferes with and infringes another person's rights to do what he or she feels to be good. There are many obviously who see such an approach to human society as the appropriate way of dealing with oppression and dictatorship of one sort or another. In part it underlies the format of the modern Conventions such as the European Convention on Human Rights, for example, and indeed of our own Bill of Rights, Freedoms and Responsibilities, even if in our case we were able to make certain helpful changes to the standard format. So I have to point out that this philosophical starting point of modern orthodoxy stands in opposition to the heart of the biblical revelation about the nature and structure of human wanting. St. Paul is teaching us that what we feel to do might very well NOT be a priori good, even when it does not appear to interfere with anyone else's rights. What we feel to do might very well lead us away from our baptismal deliverance and indeed from the whole structure of commitments that form our discipleship as Christians. This idea would be gobbledygook at best to the modern orthodoxy, but now the worst case scenario has appeared in the West by which Christian thinking is increasingly being criminalised by laws that are interpreted to forbid the expression of moral distinctions; for the modern orthodoxy has cleared out any idea of the guiding referent of revelatory belief. Now we stand or fall as Christians in the modern world by whether or not we are holding to a world view that is liable to be countered at every turn by the voices of the media and the voices of “the great and the good”, and of the political strongmen and the powers that be, a world-view that is increasingly becoming judged even to be criminal under pain of heavy penalties. So under increasing pressure from enemy forces, we are to hold that there are things we might want to do that are objectively wrong; and to confirm to ourselves that they are wrong we have to turn to those ways by which Christ rules His Kingdom, rather than the ways by which man rules his. Indeed this is what we prayed for in the Collect last week, when we prayed: “Because through the weakness of our mortal nature we can do no good thing without thee, grant us the help of thy grace, that in keeping of thy commandments we may please thee, both in will and deed.”
BEING UNDER THE GOVERNANCE OF GOD
Our Old Testament passage from Jeremiah depicts an altercation between two prophets of Judah, Jeremiah and Hananiah, after Hananiah proclaims that the yoke of the king of Babylon is broken, and within two years the temple of Jerusalem and the kingdom would be restored. Hananiah’s words were of course pleasing to his hearers, but Jeremiah points out that that did not make what he had said right. Similarly there are those today with impressive Christian credentials who will proclaim that the modern equality laws should be welcomed in their entirety as God-given, and need not do any harm. Towards them, I invite you to adopt a Jeremiah-like attitude. Jeremiah said that those prophets that have proclaimed peace need peace actually to come to show that they have been sent by God. In the same way, if modern equality laws elsewhere in the world have produced better societies, then by all means let us welcome them as God-sent; but if they have spawned outcomes which are intolerant of Christian symbols and Christian judgments about ethics and morals, then be sure that those that created these instruments originally are quite other than the agents of God in doing so.
HEAR AND RECEIVE THE WORDS OF GOD
Our primary call as Christians is therefore not merely to "do the right thing" as a majority may at any time demand of us, or even indeed merely the “appropriate” thing or the “acceptable” thing. We are called to be faithful to the words of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. We are called to be faithful to the God who has revealed Himself to us in Christ and his saints and in Scripture, and certainly when to do so places us at odds with the modern orthodoxy. We should take heart from the words of Jesus in our Gospel today. For we are not called to honour and receive merely the things that laws and conventions of dubious paternity hold to be right. We are called to honour and receive those whom the Lord Himself has sent to us, and to hear their words as if they are His. An old saying has it that “A man's agent is as the man himself”. Well, we know that the deposit of faith in Holy Scripture exists by the agency of the Holy Spirit of God. But the question remains: by whose agency does the current secular orthodoxy exist? Therefore, let St. Paul's words continue to direct the narrow path to which our baptismal commitment directs us: "But thanks be to God, that you who were once slaves of sin have become obedient from the heart to the standard of teaching to which you were delivered, and, having been set free from sin, have become slaves of righteousness."
1. At first sight St. Paul's "slavery to righteousness" appears to conflict with St. Augustine's "Love God and do as you will." Comment.
2. How in practice does listening to and following God's words differ from following laws that show what a community believes to be the right thing?